While musicians have played together in groups since the invention of the art form, orchestras came into existence much more recently. In the Renaissance period, music ensembles were made up of whatever instruments were accessible. Composers would write parts that could easily be played on a variety of instruments. These ensembles were called “consorts.”

Claudio Monteverdi pioneered the modern orchestra in 1607 while composing his opera Orfeo. Instead of writing parts that could be played on any instrument, he specified certain instruments for each part in the score. This paved the way for instruments to be organized into sections like we have today. As string instruments evolved, the distinction between high and low strings widened. In the 1800s, advancements in brass and woodwind percussions allowed composers to create complex wind parts.  

Before the 1800s, there were no conductors in front of orchestras. The concertmaster directed the ensemble while playing. As orchestras increased in size, conductors were added to direct the orchestra from the front using a baton, making it easier for musicians to see and follow along with the tempo.  

The modern orchestra was solidified in the late 1800s. Though innovative composers have experimented with the size of the orchestra, the proportions of instruments have remained relatively stable.  

Learn more about the history of the Des Moines Symphony here.